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Which of the Basic Assumptions of Modern Physics are Wrong? Announcing the 4th Foundational Questions Institute Essay Contest

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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FQXI logoThere’s something unnerving about unifying physics. The two theories that need to be unified, quantum field theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, are both highly successful. Both make predictions good to as many decimal places as experimentalists can manage. Both are grounded in compelling principles. Both do have flaws — including an unfortunate tendency to produce the number ∞ — but those flaws remain safely behind the scenes, never undermining the theories’ empirical successes.

And yet, if the theories are incompatible, something has to give. That is what makes unification so hard. In conferences, I see physicists go down the list of assumptions that underpin their theories. Each, it seems, is rock solid. But they can’t all be right. Maybe one will, on closer inspection, prove to be not like the others. Or maybe physicists have left the culprit off their list because it is so deeply embedded in their way of thinking that they don’t even recognize as an assumption. As economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify… into every corner of our minds.”

So, for its latest essay contest, the Foundational Questions Institute is asking entrants to ferret out these mental interlopers: “Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?” Scientific American is a co-sponsor of the contest, which, in practical terms, means that I’ll serve as one of the judges and my colleagues and I will consider the top-placed winners for publication. The previous contest, on the question of “Is Reality Digital or Analog?”, drew lots of mind-opening, Zeitgeist-challenging entries. I summarized my favorites here, and one will appear in the magazine this fall.

The contest will remain open through August 31st. The fun part is that you don’t need to submit an essay to participate. All the essays are available for reading, remarking, and rating. The community rankings factor into the judging decision, which we’ll announce in early December.

George Musser About the Author: is a contributing editor at Scientific American. He focuses on space science and fundamental physics, ranging from particles to planets to parallel universes. He is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory. Musser has won numerous awards in his career, including the 2011 American Institute of Physics's Science Writing Award. Follow on Twitter @gmusser.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. And Then What? 6:57 pm 05/24/2012

    I think that one day it will be discovered that the basic assumption that will be proven to be wrong is that one or more of the current basic assumptions must be wrong. That is to say that in much the same way as Newton was not “wrong” we will discover a fundamental Law or set of Laws which neatly explain all of the observations which we say prove certain theories to be simply natural subsets of a much greater whole. This of course means that what will be proven to be wrong is our assumption that given our state of knowledge about the Universe, we think that we have enough of the “ whole picture”, at this point in time, to tie everything neatly up in a complete package.
    Personally I hope that we never get to the point where we can predict every given outcome with certainty, for if and when that was to happen what would be left for us and our descendents to strive toward. Simply put, be careful what you wish for, you may not like what you actually end up with.

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  2. 2. rloldershaw 7:04 pm 05/24/2012

    Here are 3 quick suggestions for which fundamental assumptions are holding physics back.

    1. First and foremost at the beginning of the 1900s physicists assumed that the Newtonian gravitational constant is absolutely the same on all scales of nature’s hierarchy. In a discrete fractal or conformal model of nature, this assumption fails badly. The value of G within an atom or subatomic particle has never been measured; it is purely assumed to be the conventional value. If G changes by large and discrete amounts for each cosmological scale [atomic, stellar, galactic], as predicted by Discrete Scale Relativity, then you get a whole new paradigm for understanding the structure and dynamics of nature.

    2. We have assumed that strict reductionism is the “only game in town”. This is a bad assumption and flagrantly ignores the clear fractal and conformal properties of nature.

    3. Physics has suffered because of its inability to bring the fundamental symmetry: relativity of scale, into its theories. It has been wrongly assumed that scale is absolute. This is probably false and very misleading.

    Weyl, Einstein, Dirac and a host of others tried repeatedly to work relativity of scale into physics, but it never seemed to work quite right.

    However, if your emphasis is on studying nature, instead of studying Platonic models, then you can see how nature accomplishes this.

    Nature cannot have continuous conformal symmetry because that strongly violates our empirical knowledge of nature.

    But discrete conformal symmetry does not need to conflict with empirical results.

    If the laws of physics, especially gravitation, are recast with discrete conformal symmetry, then you get a new and completely different understanding of nature in terms of a discrete self-similar hierarchy that has no bounds.

    With this new paradigm you can unify GR and QM, explain the fine structure constant, demystify h-bar, resolve the vacuum energy density crisis, predict the exact nature of the dark matter, retrodict the masses of all particles (including the electron), and have a proper understanding of the hierarchy of Planck scales.

    This new paradigm predicted pulsar-planets, and it predicted the hundreds of billions of unbound planetary-mass objects recently inferred as roaming free throughout the Galaxy. It makes an exact prediction for the dark matter mass spectrum.

    I have a website that serves as a teaching resource for this new paradigm.

    Discrete Scale Relativity
    Fractal Cosmology

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  3. 3. geojellyroll 7:47 pm 05/24/2012

    In science we can prove a theory incorrect without supplanting it with one that is ‘correct’.

    I admit that after 40 years of reading quantum theory, etc. that I still struggle with the most basic of concepts. Yes, there are probably first principles that are the foundation of existence but this doesn’t mean the human mind is capable of understanding them. Sure, we definitely need to keep trying but don’t assume we will ever get ‘there’. Humans are physical entities with physical limitations. It’s hard for us to accept that some things might be beyond our grasp.

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  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 2:28 am 05/25/2012

    Which of the basic assumptions of modern physics are wrong?

    Look, if it’s wrong, you wouldn’t be making that assumption. The basic assumptions of modern physics are, so far, correct. The only wrong assumption is that you can tell the wrong assumptions before the fact. Such speculations would be fun but it isn’t science.

    Instead, SA can hold an essay writing contest that explain in simple terms a current scientific theory to the layman. That would be educational.

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  5. 5. TTLG 11:49 am 05/25/2012

    Good idea. I think that scientists tend to get stuck in the established concepts in their field even when they clearly are not working. There are a number of fields where I think that current theory has led them down a dead end. I am interested to see what people come up with and whether the insiders are really open to rethinking things. Part of the problem will be that outsiders tend to come up with ideas that have already been considered and discarded so the scientists will likely ignore the idea right from the start even if, after re-evaluation, it might actually lead to a better way of thinking about the problem.

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  6. 6. dadster 5:21 pm 05/25/2012

    Nothing wrong with both QM and GR. They see phenomena at different scales . Starting with QM and proceeding with quantum steps one might not reach GR and vice versa. But why should they be unified ? Accept the irreconcilability as an exhibition of duality of nature like the reality of the wave-particle duality of light. As in Zeno’s hare and the tortoise paradox , starting from the number 1 on the number line and moving towards the next whole number 2 on the number line , one realizes that ; by taking discrete infinitesimal steps one cannot reach number 2 unless you take infinite steps . But ,that doesn’t mean that numbers 1
    and 2 are irreconcilably different. We can work wit both .so, why should we be so obsessive about ” solving ” the duality of QM and GR ?
    Having said that, the basic flaw in physics is the belief that all phenomena is physical only. That is , it should be accessible to our five limited physical senses directly or indirectly ( through our electromagnetic based nutriments ) ,observable and measurable to be qualified as ” real” ; the rest relegated to the field of ,metaphysics.
    That rules out a whole host of phenomena from entering the realm of physics (
    = science ) .phenomena such as ” life ” , “mind” , ” emotions “, “awareness “, ” feelings “. Life manifests through physical structure ( cells , for example ) that physical structure is mistaken for life . It’s like for light to manifest, it has to reflect which doesn’t make light the same as the reflecting surface. However the fault of physics is to try to interpret life as an emergent phenomena ; the fundamental being electromagnetic energy or mass. Physics is obsessed with the idea that everything should have a beginning ( big bang ) and an end ( the big crunch ) and all processes must have structure and a step by step evolution (Darwinism ) . Hence physics is dazed when it meets with singularities , infinities and zeros and nothingness . To cover up these ” anomalies ” physics assumes quick fixes like ,zero- point energy in vacuum, normalization and renormalization and many worlds, dark energies , dark matter and so on. To align physical material world to their abstract mathematical models physics assumes the existence of many dimensions ,quarks, and exotic subatomic particles . Even with all these paraphernalia physics has not been able to create ” life ” from scratch , from inorganic chemicals. Considering that “life” is something that nature creates so abundantly ( in the form of viruses and microbes ) even in deep space, the fact that material physicists and life scientists (who so obsessively remain entrapped in a paradigm chosen by physicists without having their own different paradigm to work ) have not been
    able to create “life” in the lab, is evidence enough that material energies and physical forces are not the be all and end all of everything. The time has come to accede that there are more entities in cosmos than physical things to which alone physics should confine themselves to without trying to bring every phenomena under the roof of physics. The paradigm adopted by physics demands that everything , every entity must be quantified, measurable and lend itself to mathematical modeling. These physical concepts applicable to physical material ” things ” might not be applicable to non- physical “entities” and non- material phenomena such as emotions ( the emoting energy of physical endeavors ) , “human imagination” and “awareness” ( the agent of insights and all inspiring aspirations, inventions , innovations and discoveries ). Then there is another phenomena that go by the nomenclature ” instinct ” ; the instinct of survival is almost the defining property of life- energy itself .Time has come to
    stop ignoring these powerful fundamental agents and to treat these entities as even more fundamental constituents of natural phenomena,even more
    fundamental to physical object- oriented phenomena and matter- based energies. Physics can help in designing units of measurements and non- physical measurement criteria and the mathematicians come up with creating probabilistic mathematics of uncertainties to model the unpredictabilities involved in operating with life impulses , tendencies factoring in human emotions ,sentiments and anxieties in actions and decisions . Otherwise it would end up in the calculation calamities that the ” quants ” ended up with creating the global economic tsunami. Life- scientists must abandon operating inside physicists paradigms and physicists comfort zones and strike out to adopting different paradigms that suits them more in dealing with the more fundamental life- energies which must have originated even before electromagnetic energies and even earlier than space- time distortions . Life energies has it’s origins in ” “cosmic awareness ” the origin of space- time and matter even.Perhaps ,it’s time to seriously consider that ” information” as the fundamental entity which is the basis of even atoms and strings or superstrings or whatever , as has come out in a recent research in a Cambridge research unit. Life- sciences must take off adopting an entirely new set of paradigms abandoning it’s physical paradigm which life scientists are operating now. Science research funding agencies to please take note . The commercial gains are much more promising in life- sciences than in physics. If minds could be controlled remotely using powerful radiating mental- energies emanating from laser- sharp lively minds that could open doors to the abolition of physical wars and for the conduct of
    trade and commerce more efficiently.
    Physics must concentrate more on “mind” than on “matter”, adopting suitable paradigm shifts in their approach, thinking patterns and attitudes and,
    explore the energies that might exist in the region e> mc^2 .

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  7. 7. azzam71 7:51 pm 05/25/2012

    Dear dadster,
    I answered about all about you comments in my paper
    this paper illustrates if we want to understand physics well, we must understand relativity under the concepts and principles of quantum. If you read it carefully, you will understand all what proposed in your comment.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jh443 11:40 pm 05/25/2012

    How about this assumption that is so deeply engrained we rarely challenge it: Reality exists. :)

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  9. 9. vernwrites 3:18 pm 05/26/2012

    At the core of both theories is the notion that at one time, nothing blew up and became everything. That doesn’t work for this old field engineer. I was stuck with hard science…things had a cause and effect. If I figured out the cause (of a problem or whatever) I could effect a solution. Magic never did much…

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  10. 10. Daniel35 11:16 am 05/28/2012

    The Second Commandment says to make no “graven images”, carved in stone, so to speak. I interpret that as no images, ideas, concepts, theories etc. expected to last forever, especially those most important to us. Our universe is based on perception and assumption and our first assumption should be that many or all are changeable.

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  11. 11. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:21 am 05/29/2012

    I nevertheless liked how easily scientific community became open to dumping the relativity theory during the infamous CERN broken cable incident.

    And the same scientists laugh and reject when some layman questions the integrity of science. Time for some humility professors.

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  12. 12. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:23 am 05/29/2012

    What about the assumption that physical constants and forces don’t change with time?

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  13. 13. And Then What? 8:19 am 05/30/2012

    Here is a thought. If I were a blind man and discovered that I seem to be able describe something in two, mutually exclusive ways, say for instance one method would describe a round object but the second method said the object had to be square what are the most logical conclusions that could be drawn from my predicament? Here are some possibilities.
    1. Both methods are right and it is only my inability to understand why this is so that is the problem. In other words there is no inherent problem.
    2. Both methods are right and wrong at the same time. This may appear illogical but it may be possible that this could be the case.
    3. There is a flaw in one method, which has not been determined yet, which makes it wrong.
    4. There is a flaw in both methods which makes them both wrong.
    5. Both methods are right and it is my logic that is wrong.
    6. The object under examination is not invariable in the context of shape.
    7. The object does not exist.
    8. I am dreaming and only think I am measuring something.
    9. I do not exist.

    Fell free to add any thing to this list that you may think is relevant. I did not try to make a complete list of possibilities.

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  14. 14. cademan 9:58 pm 05/30/2012

    Entropy of the speed of light over time. Entropy at a pace of compound decrement towards zero is common enough in nature. As measuring the speed of light becomes more accurate, it will be discovered that it is decreasing relatively slowly. Meaning that the speed of light was a great number of times faster at the origin of the universe than it is now since compound decrement means it would have lost speed quicker at the beginning.

    Does it really make sense that the universe is expanding faster and causing red shift? That defies entropy. Makes more sense that the light from distant stars has slowed slightly causing the light from them to shift to the red spectrum.

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  15. 15. jack.123 6:28 pm 05/31/2012

    I have said it before,that until space is defined there will be problems.Space is the study of wave mechanics,and Mass/Energy is the study of particle mechanics.The fact light can be a particle and a wave should be the clue that puts it all together.When light is a wave we are seeing space in action.Space because it is the carrier of gravity should give the path to solving the problems.

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  16. 16. Melkholy 2:30 pm 06/6/2012

    Because the basic assumptions of physics are wrong, Einstein devoted the last 30 years of his life to an unsuccessful search for a “unified field theory,” and Steven Weinberg said “a unified theory of all forces will probably require radically new ideas” (Scientific American: A Unified Physics by 2050?… Dec. 1999).
    Errors of Physics theories:
    (1) Atom Models (from Thomson and Rutherford till Weinberg (Standard Model) and Lucas model) didn’t describe where are the atom particles and energy (Neutrinos, Thermo, Magnetic, X-rays and Gamma rays) and how the neutron change into proton, also, at any element have scientists found the positron?,
    (2) The electron configurations & electrons whizzing around the nucleus is much more complicated!
    (3) the misunderstanding of the relation between matter and antimatter led scientists to search for antimatter in the earth and under sea water, other scientists tried to find the antimatter in the space and others suggest that they will discover the antimatter in the black holes or may be behind of the universe!
    (4) The basic assumptions of physics didn’t explained the logic reason of blue colors of sea water, the blue color of the sky, the water flooding in canals connecting seas or oceans as well as the human cells oxidations.
    (5) If the Ozone Hole caused by gases contaminations and pollution (as the basic assumptions of physics), then why was it discovered over the South Pole which is not affected from it, while no Ozone Hole over the North Pole which much closer to the main industrial areas of EU countries, USA, Canada, and Russia?
    (6) The basic assumptions of physics didn’t explained the reason of air fluctuations, boiled water circulation, oil & metal boiling circulation, fire circulations as well as hurricane and storm circulation.
    (7) It is fact that energy remains constant? Then, where the sun energy which arrived to our earth since hundred thousands of years?
    (8) Einstein’s Equation of Relativity Theory;
    In spite of the glorification which surrounded the theory of relativity (between matter and energy) and Einstein himself, mystery remained about his equation and secrecy still surrounds how he was formulating it!
    Probably many millions of scientists & scholars around the world knew by heart that Einstein’s equation (E = mc2) {Energy = Mass x (speed of light) 2}, but I think that nobody really knew how Einstein formulated his equation!
    After we detect the mystery, it is quite clear that Einstein’s equation was wrong.
    Also; we claim that the correct equation of relativity will be: E = 4.19mc3
    (Energy calculation by Elkholy’s Equation is roughly more than One million times than which was calculated by Einstein’s Equation!!)
    Therefore; the calculation of Matter and Energy in the universe according Einstein’s equation consider the main reason behind the confusion about unbalance between Matter and Energy, the assumption that matter was lost some where, the imaginary belief that that “Lost Matter” may be in form of “Dark Matter” and the useless projects to look for Lost Matter in the universe or behind the universe!
    While the calculation of Matter and Energy in the universe according Elkholy’s Equation clearly show that the amounts of Energy and Matter in the Universe are equal and quite balanced.
    Logically; there is no lost matter and there is no dark matter, but may be some dark vision.
    (9) Finally; the basic assumptions of physics didn’t explained the gravitation.
    Of course; scientists can attain success if they comprehend rules and fundamental laws of any given activity. But when mankind didn’t like the clear case, of course their efforts, theories, meetings, and programs cannot reach success results.
    Therefore; we suggest that our new rules of physics will explain in easy way all chemical, physical and universal phenomena’s. Also it will offers easy solutions for the main world problems: Global Warming, Ozone hole, Water and Atmosphere Contaminations, Food Crisis, Energy Crisis, Disasters and over Flooding, Black clouds over cities, and Medical Problems such as human cells oxidation and Viral Diseases..

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  17. 17. erikson 8:38 pm 06/12/2012

    A tentative abstract for essay:

    This essay’s purpose is to show that real measures of mass, light, time and space must satisfy the conditions of action (physical), feeling (sensual), and thought (memory) in all matter. Physics resolves most energies of action, yet avoids suggestions of philosophy that hidden parameters may describe awareness and memory.

    The source author here is water who may not ” talk to” you, but might talk “through you”… if one attempts to be aware and to translate. The premise in this work is that all the “little people” in the micro world (bacteria, molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, and particles) suffer birth and death much like all the “big people” called living. (How arrogant humans are!) Water, with little thought (like many humans), has awareness and memory to always exhibit 1000 C (2120 F) and 00 C (320 F) appropriately. Assuming that mass occupies position and light occupies space, an energy and power war ensues for the thermodynamic existence of each. (like “living” matter, particularly humans). Analysis of space and time geometrically produces a deterministic probability to satisfy quantum theory and general relativity.

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  18. 18. dadster 6:36 pm 07/28/2012

    To Azzam 71 ( comment number 7) ;I went through what you had written in the website given by you in your response to my comment at number 6.I find that you have restricted your observations and findings to electromagnetic energy and its components. But I was talking about the possible energies associated with mass that lie at regions e>mc^2 ( e GREATER THAN mc^2) which will not be electromagnetic energy with which mass is always associated with .In the LINEAR graph of e=mc^2 ( C being a constant in the electromagnetic field )the line will have a slope of (tan^(-1)c^2, ie,tan inverse (c^2))which is NOT 90 degrees .If the straight line-graph is sketched with ‘m’ on x-axis and ‘e’ on y-axis, at ranges of (10^12)the region e> mc^2 would be amply visible ( I used the software ‘mathcad” to sketch it ).
    i was wondering what these energies associated with mass’m” could be? One way of explaining it away is, of course the normal ruse physicists employ on such occasions is that its only a mathematical region popped out of the mathematical model used and it has no physical meaning . This is just like olden physicists saying that root of -1 being only a mathematical entity has no use for physicists as the abstract minus 1 has no equivalent material representation.
    But itsmy suggestion that instead of ignoring that region it would be prudent to explore the possibility that after all, “mass” may have other types of non-electromagnetic energies also associated with it and that ‘e’ represents the total “extraditable electromagnetic energy”. On this hypothesis to go ahead and explore the nature of such energies and its connection with such quantum region phenomena as “advance waves” or ‘pilot waves’and “quantum entanglements”, which are not explainable through the properties of electromagnetic energies alone. The rational interpretation of these as yet unexplored region e>mc^2 might reveal a far richer field in physics helping material physics to explain quantum electrodynamics the better .It may even help perhaps to factor in human ( and animal and microbial) “minds” , which is relegated to the field of metaphysics at present, into the region of the creation of a “newer” physics with which it would make it possible even to control or to design minds to given specifications.The promises, possibilities and potentialities of such a course are infinite . Its up to professional physicists, bio-scientists and computer scientists to seriously explore such a potential field, anvil-ing out new mathematical tools and experimental procedures,needed for such a scientific expedition into the uncharted territories of non-electromagnetic energy-fields associated with mass existing in the universe .

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  19. 19. Challenger 10:22 pm 10/14/2012

    Dear George
    This is my essay presented in contest 2012
    What is your opinion?
    Thank you fora advance
    Yuri Danoyan

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  20. 20. Dov Henis 12:29 pm 11/20/2012

    Energy-Mass Poles Of the Universe

    Again and again:

    The universe is a two-poles entity, an all-mass and an all-energy poles.

    Singularity and the Big Bang MUST have happened with the smallest base universe particles, the gravitons, that MUST be both energy and mass, even if all of them are inert mass just one smallest fraction of a second at the pre-Bing Bang singularity. All mass formats evolve from gravitons that convert into energy i.e. escape their gravitons shatters-clusters, becoming mass formats in motion, i.e. energy. And they all end up again as mass in a repeat universal singularity.

    Universe expansion and re-contraction proceed simultaneously.

    Graviton is the elementary particle of the universe. The gravitons are compacted into the universal inert singularity mass only for the smallest fraction of a second, when all the gravitons of the universe are compacted together, inert, with zero distance between all of them. This state is feasible and mandated by their small size and by their hence weak force.

    The Big Bang is the shattering of the short-lived singularity mass into fragments that later became galactic clusters. This is inflation. The shattering is the start of movement of the shatters i.e. the start of reconversion of mass into energy, mass in motion. This reconversion proceeds at a constant rate since the big bang, since the annealing-tempering of singularity and the start of resolution of gravitons. The release of gravitons from their shatters-clusters proceeds at constant rate due to their weak specific force due to their small size.

    Gravity is propensity of energy reconversion to mass.
    Inflation and expansion are per Newton.

    Since the Big Bang galactic clusters are losing mass at constant rate. Mass, gravitons, continue escaping at constant rate from their Big Bang fragments-clusters thus becoming energy, mass in motion, thus thrusting the clusters. Constant thrust and decreasing galactic clusters weight accelerate the separation of clusters from each other. Plain common sense.

    A commonsensible conjecture is that the Universe Contraction is initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy) deliver their thrust to other particles and are collected by and stored in black holes at very low energy levels steadily leading to the re-formation of the Universe Singularity, simultaneously with expansion, i.e. that universal expansion and contraction are going on simultaneously.

    The conjectured implications is that the Universe is a product of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal mass-energy particles of the universe.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

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  21. 21. Jack Sarfatti 1:12 am 03/27/2013

    One assumption that is wrong is the no-signaling arguments in quantum theory. They are of course correct for orthodox quantum theory of dead simple matter like we see in scattering experiments. This follows from the linearity of the Hermitian operators and the unitarity of the time evolution of the wave function. However, these assumptions are violated in complex open systems far from thermodynamic equilibrium with spontaneous broken symmetries in the ground state that has an emergent order parameter. This order parameter is a giant quantum wave in ordinary space with an enormous number of integer spin “bosons” in the same single-particle micro-quantum state. This giant quantum wave is also a Glauber coherent state that corresponds to a non-Hermitian boson destruction operator. It’s time evolution is not unitary and the dynamics is highly nonlinear. These macro-quantum coherent states can be entangled with each other and signal nonlocality without the need of a classical decryption key seems possible. Living matter is such a system. Experiments by Ben Libet, Dean Radin, Dick Bierman and Daryl Bem show a back-from-the-future presponse that can be explained as future to past entanglement signal nonlocality of distinguishable non-orthogonal Glauber coherent states. Memory can also be explained this way as past to future signal nonlocality.

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